Ancient Cambodian temple


About Cambodia

Most Cambodians consider themselves to be Khmers, descendants of the Angkor Empire that extended over much of Southeast Asia and reached its zenith between the 10th and 13th centuries. Attacks by the Thai and Cham (from present-day Vietnam) weakened the empire, ushering in a long period of decline. The king placed the country under French protection in 1863 and it became part of French Indochina in 1887. Following Japanese occupation in World War II, Cambodia gained full independence from France in 1953. During the 1960 and 70’s, the Cambodian people faced a period of great destruction and turmoil. In the 1970’s, a rebel Communists militant organization that was and heavily influenced and backed by China started to wreck havoc in Cambodia. After a five year struggle led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge (which means "Red Khmer" in French) toppled the Cambodian government when it seized control of the capital city of Phnom Penh in April of 1975.

The Killing Fields

Immediately, Pol Pot ordered that all the cities were to be evacuated at gun point and the entire population sent on forced marches to the Cambodian rural countryside where the city-dwellers were combined with the local population to form collective forced labor farms. The Khmer Rouge’s goal was to rebuild the country's agriculture on the model of the 11th century Angkor Empire. During this process, the Khmer Rouge discarded Western medicine, destroyed temples, libraries, and anything they considered to be of “Western” origin.

During their brutal and genocidal reign, the Khmer Rouge subjected Cambodia to a radical social reform process that was aimed at creating a purely agrarian-based Communist society. The city-dwellers were to be forcefully deported at gun point into to the Cambodian countryside, where they were combined with the local population to form collective farms and subjected the populace to forced labor.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to eliminate anyone suspected of having any ties to capitalism or was “involvement in free-market activities". Suspected capitalists encompassed professionals and almost everyone with an education, and most anyone with connections to foreign governments. According to Robert D. Kaplan, "eyeglasses were as deadly as the yellow star”, as they were seen as a sign of western intellectualism. The Khmer Rouge believed parents were tainted with capitalism. Consequently, children were separated from parents and brainwashed to socialism as well as taught torture methods with animals. Children were a "dictatorial instrument of the party" and were given leadership in torture and executions. To begin to understand the evils of Pol Pot’s government one just need to consider one of their mottoes which was; “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss." It is estimated that 1.5 million people, out of a total population of 8 million, was killed through execution, torture, starvation, disease,  or physical fatigue resulting from the harsh conditions of forced labor. This period has come to be known as the "killing fields."

A New Hope Dawns for Cambodia

Today's population of Cambodia is just under 14 million, 95 percent of whom are Buddhist. The Khmers, the original inhabitants of Cambodia, are still the largest people group. There are also small Malay, Vietnamese and Chinese populations in the country. Martial arts and boat racing are popular national sports.

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Status of Religious Freedom in Cambodia

Religious Demography

Cambodia is comprised ov approximately 93 percent of the population is either Theravada Buddhist or some form of ethnic religion. The Theravada Buddhist tradition is widespread and strong in all provinces, with an estimated 4,330 pagodas throughout the country. The vast majority of ethnic Khmer Cambodians are Buddhist, and there is a close association between Buddhism, Khmer cultural traditions, and daily life. Adherence to Buddhism generally is considered intrinsic to the country's ethnic and cultural identity. The Mahayana school of Buddhism claims approximately 31,639 followers and has 88 temples throughout the country.

Approximately 2.1 percent of the population are Muslim and are predominantly ethnic Cham, who generally are found in towns and rural fishing villages on the banks of the Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong River, as well as in Kampot Province. Some organizations cite lower estimates for the number of Cham Muslims. There are four branches of Islam represented: the Malay-influenced Shafi'i branch, practiced by 88 percent of Cham Muslims; the Saudi-Kuwaiti-influenced Salafi (sometimes called "Wahhabi") branch, which claims 6 percent of the total Muslim population, although this number is increasing; the indigenous Iman-San branch, practiced by 3 percent; and the Kadiani branch, which also accounts for 3 percent. There are 244 mosques of the 4 main branches and 333 small Suravs, which are meeting places that have congregations of up to 40 persons and do not have a minbar from which Friday sermons are given. Suravs may belong to any branch of Islam and are distinct from other types of mosques only in their architectural structure; they are usually much smaller and built in rural areas of the country.

The small but growing Christian community constitutes approximately 2 percent of the population. There are an estimated 100 Christian organizations or denominations that operate freely throughout the country. There are approximately 1,609 churches--1544 Protestant and 65 Roman Catholic. Only an estimated 900 of these churches are officially registered. Other religious groups with small followings include the ethnic Vietnamese Cao Dai and the Baha'i Faith, each with an estimated 2,000 practitioners.

Legal/Policy Framework

The Cambodian constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, and the Government does not tolerate abuse of religious freedom, either by governmental or private actors. Buddhism is the state religion, and the Government promotes Buddhist holidays, provides Buddhist training and education to monks and others in pagodas, and modestly supports an institute that performs research and publishes materials on Khmer culture and Buddhist traditions.

The law requires all religious groups, including Buddhist groups, to submit applications to the Ministry of Cults and Religions if they wish to construct places of worship and conduct religious activities. In their applications, groups must state clearly their religious purposes and activities, which must comply with provisions forbidding religious groups from insulting other religious groups, creating disputes, or undermining national security. There is no penalty for failing to register, and in practice some groups do not. Although the Ministry of Cults and Religions attempted to enforce a 2007 regulation requiring all churches to re-register in order to obtain a new operating license, no churches had complied within the reporting period.

The Directive on Controlling External Religions requires registration of places of worship and religious schools, in addition to government approval prior to constructing new places of worship. Places of worship must be located at least two kilometers from each other and may not be used for political purposes or to house criminals or fugitives from the law. The distance requirement applies only to new construction of places of worship and not to offices of religious organizations. There have been no cases documented where the directive was used to bar a church or mosque from constructing a new facility. The directive also requires that religious groups refrain from openly criticizing other groups. During the reporting period, there were no reports that any religious groups encountered significant difficulties in obtaining approval for construction of places of worship.

The Government permits Buddhist religious instruction in public schools. Other forms of religious instruction are prohibited in public schools; however, non-Buddhist religious instruction may be provided by private schools. The Government directed that all Muslim students and government employees be allowed to wear Islamic attire in class and in the office. The decision reflected respect for the beliefs of those other than the Buddhist majority. All major Theravada Buddhist holidays are observed by the Cambodian Government.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period. Unlike in previous years, the Government did not close any madrassahs (Islamic schools). The Government has granted permission for the construction of a new Islamic college which will provide general education and skills training to both Muslims and non-Muslims. There were no known reports of religious detainees or prisoners in the country.

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Statistics for Cambodia

Location: Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, between Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos
Climate: Tropical; rainy, monsoon season (May to November); dry season (December to April); little seasonal temperature variation
Terrain: Central lowlands ringed by steep, rugged highlands
Elevation Lowest Point: Gulf of Thailand 0 m
Higest Point: Phnum Aoral 1,810 m
Natural Resources: Petroleum, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, marble, limestone, precious stones, natural gas, hydropower
Total Population: 14,802,000
0-14 years:
15-64 years:
65 years and over:
Urban Population: 22% of total population
Birth Rate: 25.73 births/1,000 population (2009 est.)
Infant Mortality Rate: 47.61 deaths/1,000 live births
Life Expectancy: 62.1 years
Largest City & Population: Phnom Penh
Major Ethnic & Linguistic Groups: Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, other 4%
Language: Khmer (official) 95%, French, English
Literacy Rate: 73.6%
Religion & Christian Missions Progress
Religions: Buddhism 82.6%, Ethnic Religion 9.0%, Islam 3.9%, Non-Religious 2.9%, Christianity 1.2%, Hinduism 0.2%, Other 0.2%
Total People Groups/ Unreached 42 / 30
Gospel Outreach Progress: Unreached / Least-Reached
Less than 2% Evangelicals and
Less than 5% Christian Adherents
Unreached People - # Groups
Unreached People - Population
Unreached People - Population %
95.2 %
Formative Church - # Groups
Formative Church - Population
Formative Church - Population %
4.3 %
Established Church -# Groups
Established Church - Population
Established Church - Population %
Persecution Ranking: Not Ranked (1=High to 50=Low)
Human Development Index 0.593 (0=Low to 1=High) Per United Nations
Average Annual Income: $480 USD (2009 est.)
Unemployment rate: 4.9% (2009 est.)
Population Below Poverty Line: 32.7% (2007 est.)
Industries: Tourism, garments, construction, rice milling, fishing, wood and wood products, rubber, cement, gem mining, textiles
Government Type: Multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy
Independence: 9 November 1953 (from France)
Legal System: Primarily a civil law mixture of French-influenced codes from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) period, royal decrees, and acts of the legislature, with influences of customary law and remnants of communist legal theory; increasing influence of common law; accepts compulsory ICJ jurisdiction with reservations

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